Thursday, 21 May 2015

Robert Gray - Sketch of the Harbour.

I find myself reaching for a copy of Robert Gray whenever I want to immerse myself in the beauty of a remembered scene or location.  Robert Gray can do that for me – his perfect descriptive lines take me to places I have been and seen and trigger physical memories with an emotional overlay.  Surprisingly, the overlay is the way I know I felt it to be at the time but couldn’t quite grasp it back then.  But Gray comes along and provides expression that makes me breathe, “oh yes!”  I’m including two of Robert Gray’s poems in this post – ‘Sketch of the Harbour’ and ‘Harbour Dusk’.  Both are observations of Sydney Harbour (one of the most beautiful harbours in the world).  I know Sydney Harbour well, having spent weeks and days on warships tied up alongside, and idle hours reflecting on its traffic – just how Robert Gray describes it.  In Sketch of the Harbour, the writer is taking a ride on a public ferry, probably from Circular Quay to Manly (out where yachts have got the space and wind to manoeuvre – “bow (wave) fuming, of a champagne bottle’s lip”).  The period in which the poem was written is revealed by the description of the ferry in the first stanza, “long, wet trajectory of the ferry’s railing, widely outswinging ….”.  They don’t build ferries like that anymore – with passenger deck railings following the graceful curvature of the hull and capped with solid timber.  That has to be in the 1970’s, early 1980’s, last of the double ended, double screw steamship ferries.  For a nostalgic moment and to get the, “ferry’s railing, safely caught in my hand”, go down to Darling Harbour in Sydney and visit the old SS South Steyne – she is an early example of this type of ferry (now converted into a floating restaurant).  For a further appreciation of Sketch of the Harbour, buy a ferry ticket on a sunny Sunday afternoon and take the trip from Circular Quay to Manly.

Sketch of the Harbour

The long, wet trajectory of the ferry’s railing
widely outswinging
is safely caught in my hand.
And I watch a yacht that is coasting by,
at its bow the fuming
of a champagne bottle’s lip.
All about on the harbor the yachts are slowly waltzing,
or in close-up
their ecstatic geometry.
Light fragments crackling above the suburbs and water,
whitely, as from a welder’s torch,
on a soap-white day.
In the shadow of the ferry, the oily, dense water
is flexile, striated
as launching muscles.
But further out, there is only sunlight over a surface –
a constant flickering, like a lit-up
airport control.
And the gulls, white as flying foam, lie beside us here
with the clear balloons of air
underneath their arms.
How apt is the title, Sketch of the Harbour?  It is a sketch – a series of brushstroke words that travel the eye from the railing of the ferry in the first stanza to the nearby racing yachts painted in the next two stanzas, to a description of the light in stanza four, how the water appears in stanza five, and then drawing the eye up to the sky where seagulls hover, “with balloons of air, underneath their arms”.  I note and like the repeated ‘…eeey’ and ‘…ing’ sounds in the poem.

Harbour Dusk is another poem that paints Sydney Harbour in a particular light – this time the sun is set and evening is approaching, “away off, through the strung Bridge (Sydney Harbour Bridge), a sky of mulberry, and orange chiffon.”  In this poem the writer is taking a late afternoon walk with his girl and they pause at one of the many sandstone ocean walls (“stone parapet’s”) you find in public parks dotted around the harbour foreshore – if on the North Shore, then I imagine Milson’s Point, Kirribilli or Cremorne Point.  If on the city side, I’m thinking maybe Elizabeth Bay, Rose Bay or Nielson Park (more likely because the writer is looking, “across … the harbour” to a “far shore of dark, crumbling bush (woodland)” – Bradley’s Head or the National Park).  .  However, for further appreciation of Harbour Dusk, catch a train at sunset across the ‘Bridge’ to Milson’s Point.  Walk through the streets of Kirribilli to the harbour’s edge and the “empty” park.  Find a sandstone wall to lay your hands on, and watch the changing colours of the sky to the west through the arch of the Sydney Harbour (“strung”) Bridge, “of mulberry and orange chiffon, mauve-grey …”.

Harbour Dusk

She and I came wandering there through an empty park,
and we laid our hands on a stone parapet’s
fading life.  Before us, across the oily, aubergine dark
of the harbour, we could make out yachts -
beneath an overcast sky, that was mauve underlit,
against a far shore of dark, crumbling bush.
Part of the city, to our left, was fruit shop bright.
After the summer day, a huge, moist hush.
The yachts were far across the empty fields of water.
One, at times, was gently rested like a quill.
They seemed to whisper, slipping amongst each other,
always hovering, as though resolve were ill.
Away off, through the strung Bridge, a sky of mulberry
and orange chiffon.  Mauve-grey, each cloven sail
like nursing sisters, in a deep corridor: some melancholy;
or nuns, going to an evening confessional.
I like the construction of Harbour Dusk with it’s rhyme and part rhyme pattern.  And there are a couple of lines that keep me thinking what does it mean – one line in the first stanza, “hands on a stone parapet’s fading life”.  What is ‘fading life’ when referred to a stone wall (parapet)?  Is it that darkness is setting in and the parapet is fading from vision?  Or is the actual existence of the parapet ‘fading’ away?  Possible – because a soft sandstone was used extensively in early construction around Sydney Harbour.  This ‘parapet’ (sea-wall) may be one of those made of sandstone that over years has weathered and got worn down by the elements.  I think the second line in the next stanza is a clue, “against a far shore of dark, crumbling bush”.  It’s the word, ‘crumbling’.  The writer is standing at a ‘crumbling’ sea-wall looking across the harbour to natural bushland standing on the harbour’s edge that he sees as also being blown and knocked around to the forces of wind and weather – nature’s ‘crumbling bush’, the man-made ‘crumbling’ wall.  Why not?
In the last stanza there’s the line, “…. each cloven sail – like nursing sisters, in a deep corridor: some menancholy;”.  The word ‘cloven’ used as an adjective must refer to the curved and cleft outline shape of a yacht’s sails; or is the writer inspired by the architectural ‘sails’ of the Sydney Opera House?  Whatever, the phrase,  “like nursing sisters”, further dates the writing of this poem back in the days when nursing sisters carried rank, wore stiff, starched, white veils and breezed through the wards like ships under sail.  When did they stop behaving like that – was it the 1970’s?  OK, so they are viewed as if in a ‘deep corridor’ (in a hospital or a convent somewhere), but what does it mean that some are, ‘melancholy’?  Not all of the sisters (or nuns), only ‘some’ are melancholy, the others are not.  I believe the sails of the Sydney Opera House are the inspiration for these lines.  Viewed as a nurse or nun’s veil, each sail frozen in position expresses an emotion – there are some sails that are tilted open toward the sky, giving an expression of joy.  There are others that bow in to themselves, appearing to be ‘melancholy’.  Don’t take my word for it, come to Sydney and walk the harbour foreshore with Robert Gray.

My link to Robert Gray’s descriptive poems of vessels and harbours comes from a descriptive poem I wrote some time ago but recently dug out and re-visited.  I try to be disciplined in keeping a diary/journal – have done for years.  I find capturing observations and thoughts at the moment, even in the crudest form, helps to preserve emotional memory, so when you want to come back and reflect you find that your recorded entries do provide a wonderful source of creativity and insight.  Here is my ‘revised’ poem, At Sea.  Following the poem are the original diary notes from which I settled on the final version.

1988.  On board HMAS Canberra.  We’re heading down to Hobart for the tall ships race and celebrations.  This particular day is overcast and bleak; a cool day, threatening to rain.  The wind is cold.  I hunch into my overalls, hands in pockets. We sail quite close to the coast somewhere south of Eden.
At Sea
The sea entirely silver in our wake,
The sky complete with clouds,
Mark the chart somewhere south of Eden,
And for the moment you might like to make
It 1770, opening up some of Cookie’s old tracks,
Just as leisurely laid with scarce way on,
Standing off green mountain peaks he held to port,
And this our world dreamtime gentle all over,
The roll of the ship, the stillness of land,
White birds we name sea ducks for escort,
And brown forest birds tip their wings to water,
Giving natural pleasure in the master’s hand,
Laying up only the sun to be caught,
Warm between the blades of our shoulders.
At Sea (diary notes)

The sea is silver in our wake.
Only clouds in the sky,
Over the rising peaks of land off to starboard.
Birds fly low over the gently chopped water.
A white hulled fishing boat,
Makes pitching progress across our line of advance.
Off to port is a grey merchantman,
Caught up between us, Hobart and Torrens.
We alter course and head directly for the land.
The sun can be felt just warm on my back,
Through the material of my overalls.
Exposed skin of face and hands pleasantly cool to a light breeze.
A big, white sea bird floats in the water as we sail by.
Everything is gentle,
The roll of the ship,
The stillness of the land,
The vastness of the sky,
Puffed white clouds,
Gliding birds,
Froth of surging waves.
We got closer to the shore,
And the folds in the land can be seen.
A flock of brown birds are disturbed in our path.
Hundreds of them wheel above the water,
And settle again further ahead,
Only to be disturbed,
Once more as we move up to them,
Across the sea.
                                                          J. O. White.



  1. Very good written. I appreciate your post.

  2. Thankyou very much - always nice to know there are other poetry lovers.